Comments: Transdisciplinarity and its articulation
Integrative Knowledge Project |
1. Unarticulated "holism" as a conceptual trap
In the desperate search for meaningful forms of conceptual integration,
some simplistic forms of holism have exerted a hypnotic effect. The "holographic
paradigm" and the concept of "Gaia" have performed a useful function in
focusing attention on the possibility of forms of integration beyond the
fragmentation of the disciplines. This tends to be achieved at the expense
of any means of articulating variety and detail within such perspectives.
Setting up integrative perspectives in opposition to fragmented frameworks
is not sufficient. It does not provide a basis for organized action --
or rather it opens the way to abusive forms of action in the name of "integration".
Furthermore it merely establishes a new form of (part-whole) polarization
when what is required is a more insightful way of dealing with polarization
-- and benefitting from its advantages when appropriate.
2. Transdisciplinary conceptual transformation
The need for conceptual scaffolding is clear given the kinds of complexity
with which society has to work. The challenge of making the more complex
structures comprehensible is also clear -- those most appropriate to the
challenge of sustainable development may be beyond the ability of any single
human mind to grasp (Judge, 1986a). But any form of development implies
structural transformation. Whilst transforming simplistic structures, like
conference agendas and organization charts, may pose little challenge,
the transformation of the complex structures described earlier is quite
The process of conceptual or social transformation appears to call for
a form of dynamic scaffolding which provides some form of continuity --
from stage to stage -- through the transformation process. What we are
looking for is a form of scaffolding onto which relationships can be mapped,
and then be stretched or changed into what might be some very different
kind of structure -- suggesting new kinds of relationships between the
concepts so bound. The metamorphosis of a caterpillar into a butterfly
provides a sobering metaphor of the possible complexity of the challenge.
Two examples of this kind of structure may be noted:
(a) Image transformation: The facility of image-transformation
on computer suggest many possibilities. The challenge is to find ways of
relating conceptual structures and real-world challenges to such images.
Of special interest is the way in which development is to be understood
or encoded in such image transformation. For example, if the many details
of the global problematique could be encoded onto one (or more) archetypal
animals, suitably animated, this would be of major conceptual and symbolic
significance -- especially when the animation can be used to represent
a transformation process. The media advantages are obvious.
(b) Vector equilibrium: Buckminster Fuller (1975, 1982) drew
attention to a very unusual symmetrical polyhedron, the vector equilibrium
(normally known as the cuboctahedron). It is unusual in that it lies on
a transformational pathway to a variety of other structures. An appropriately
jointed model can be transformed into an icosahedron and from there to
an octahedron and on to a tetrahedron. The merit of this model, aside from
the many claims made by Fuller himself, is that it provides a way of understanding
the structural transformation process. The challenge in a policy-making
environment is not to focus on this particular structure, but rather to
use it as an example to persuade topologists to locate other transformational
systems of this kind so as to build up a library of possibilities on which
Presumably it will only be through such explorations that conferences
can anchor their transformative insights so that people can recognize and
have confidence in the structural continuity of appropriate change, rather
than being threatened by change of any kind -- and therefore resistant
3. Enabling new strategies towards higher conceptual orders
The real challenge for policy-making in relation to the crises of our
times is to provide people with tools to counter the imaginal deficiency
from which we collectively suffer when dealing with complexity. The texty,
linear-environment of speeches, messaging and documents has a poor track
record. Eminent experts, with suitable budgetary encouragement, can now
be found to negate the importance of any problem (or corresponding policy),
whether over-population, acid rain, low-level radiation exposure, or smoking.
Their "facts" are no longer a reliable basis for action.
Just as aircraft were faced with the technological challenge of the
sound barrier, computer software developers face the challenge of the imagination
barrier - to produce software capable of facilitating more complex forms
of conceptual communication in policy and conferencing environments. The
"sub-sonic" policy conferencing problems of adaptive decision-making have
been largely solved. But we do not yet know how to ensure the stability
and integrity of policies functioning at a higher imaginative level. The
conventional organizational and conceptual structures tend to get shaken
apart by the dynamics to which they endeavour to respond. In terms of an
architectural metaphor, it has proved impossible to lock policy "keystones"
into position to redistribute the stresses characteristic of policies of
a complexity appropriate to the challenge.
However, even when developed, it seems unlikely that the majority of
policy-making constituencies concerned with adaptive policy- making will
have access to such facilities or see the need for them. One difficulty
is that it is always possible to argue that the concrete, short-term, simple
procedures currently in common use are sufficient in a crisis-management
environment. Another is that much of what passes for international projects
and programmes is in effect reactive, crisis management. Upbeat reporting
of their successes is always possible. But in strategic terms it is rather
like a chess novice playing a grand master. The novice can be allowed to
delude himself by many short-term gains as he progressively sinks into
a more and more disadvantageous strategic situation from which recovery
is hopeless. This is the dilemma of sustainable development.
4. Metaphors of transformation: breaking through the "imagination
Metaphor is renowned as a key to creative thinking and innovation and
a most intriguing unexplored resource to guide the elaboration of more
complex conceptual frameworks and organizational structures. Information
systems have traditionally been ruthless in eliminating the ambiguity of
metaphor from the communications they support. However, one great advantage
of metaphor is that, like rumour and humour, and if well-chosen, it travels
rapidly through any network, whether computer-assisted or not. How then
might it be possible to marry metaphor processing into policy-making environments
as a way of breaking through the imagination barrier ?
Consider the fashionable focus for the international community at this
time, namely sustainable development. How is this complex notion to be
carried and addressed in the imagination, and especially in the media.
Metaphor can be used to highlight the collective difficulty in developing
strategies to bring it about. Metaphors such as "global village" or "Gaia"
do not give focus to the strategic dilemma and the operational opportunities.
Due to imaginal deficiency, sustainable development is best understood
at this time through the metaphor "having our cake and eating it too".
This corresponds to its corporate (re)interpretation as "sustainable competitive
advantage". Both are tragic examples of poverty of imagination in a complex
Consider a policy environment in which text (including speech), data
and graphics were treated as infrastructure "plumbing" and in which the
conceptual centre of gravity was shifted to an imaginative level sustained
and disciplined by the computer-assisted use of metaphor. A major concern
in the conference would be to ensure the circulation of meaning through
metaphor. Complex conceptual insights would be expressed succinctly through
metaphor. The challenge would not be who could dominate the discussion
in quantitative air-time terms, procedural manipulation, or resolutions
passed. Rather it would be a question of who could produce the most seductive
metaphors to capture the strategic complexities and the opportunities for
the formation (and survival over time) of hitherto impossible coalitions
of bodies favouring seemingly incompatible policies based on integrative
conceptual frameworks of unsuspected elegance.
From Encyclopedia of World Problems and Human Potential